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Let’s be clear: MCAs matter, and they reveal continuing student-achievement disparities

This year’s numbers again confirm a depressing truth: Minnesota has some of the largest disparities in the country.

This year’s numbers again confirm a depressing truth: Minnesota has some of the largest disparities in the country when it comes to failing our students of color.
MinnPost file photo by Beth Hawkins

Fasten your seatbelt, it’s about to get a little ranty around here. I’ve been at the keyboard for hours trying to pound out a story that has become an annual tradition: an effort to cloak the release of state test scores in helpful context.

This year I’m seized by a tremendous impatience. If Minnesota kids continue to advance at the pace of the last decade, few of you reading this will live to see every child college and career ready.

Me? Swallowing the yearly dose of positive gloss will kill me long before that. So I am taking a deep breath and wading into the fray to defend a very unpopular standardized test.

Tuesday morning, the state Department of Education released the results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA), which were administered in the spring. There are isolated pockets of double-digit gains and losses, but overall statewide scores were stagnant in science and math and up 2 percentage points over 2013 in reading.

Positive framing

Yet I have an inbox full of press releases that frame this in positive terms. Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), for instance, “continues to see positive trends in MCA results for almost all student subgroups.”

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African-American students saw no increase in math proficiency and 1 percent growth in reading for a districtwide rate of 22 percent. Scores among American Indians were flat except for a 4 percent increase to 15 percent in science.

Hispanic-Americans were up 1 percent each in reading, to 23 percent, and math to 31 percent. Asian-Americans gained 2 percentage points in each subject to 41 percent and 48 percent.

Not to kick a district while it’s down, but an accompanying grid outlining “notable achievements” spurred questions. For instance, the top and second-to-the-top achievements among African-Americans are gains of 19 percent in math proficiency and 17 percent in reading at Burroughs Community School.

Few black students among 800

Just 56 of the school’s 800 students are black, which averages out to fewer than 10 in each of its six grades. Since grades 3-5 take the MCAs, let’s assume 33 took the test. A little back of the envelope math suggests this could well mean six more kids passed than last year.

And consider the school’s incredibly low poverty rate of 12 percent. MPS has data that shows it is failing its middle- and upper-class African-Americans at rates hugely disproportionate to their white classmates.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Education calls the statewide numbers “progress” and “steady achievement,” even though African-American students in grades 3-8 pass the tests half as often as their white classmates.

St. Paul Public Schools’ (SPPS) choice of the adjective “slight” to describe its gains and declines seems refreshingly forthright — especially given that its overall increase of 1 percent brings the district’s reading proficiency rate to 38 percent.

Some want to curtail testing

I could go on. But my inbox is also bursting with press releases from groups, including Education Minnesota, calling for curtailing testing.

Asked the union’s president, Denise Specht: “Given the limited usefulness of standardized tests like the MCAs, it’s time for Minnesotans to ask why the federal government requires these tests, why so much taxpayer money goes toward developing and scoring them and why schools feel compelled to dedicate so many weeks to test prep.”

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It is true that in some districts teachers are being asked to administer a tangle of assessments beyond the state and federal ones, many of which do not provide information they can use at the ground level to move their kids forward. But those are not the MCAs.

The MCAs are the set of numbers we use to evaluate how well a school or a district is reaching its various subgroups of students. Before federal law began requiring states to report this data by race, socioeconomic status and other factors we had no hard information about how many kids were being left behind.

This year: Year-over-year comparisons possible

Early versions were lousy. Making matters worse, in recent year more rigorous standards meant new tests. This year’s MCAs are the first time in recent years that a clean year-over-year comparison has been possible.

“The worst thing we can do is eradicate these tests because they are a clear reminder where we are and how the gaps persist,” explains Daniel Sellers, executive director of the advocacy organization MinnCAN. “We need to spend several solid years with these tests because changing them once again would just confuse students and parents.”

We — and by we I mean education policymakers, lawmakers and the journalists tasked with interpreting it all — have failed utterly to help the body politic understand what we are testing for and how the data gleaned will help students.

Quick — what springs to mind when you hear the phrase “standardized tests”? Chances are you hear the phrase as pejorative, with the adjective “standardized” suggesting something dead and bureaucratic. Most likely you imagine pupils engaged in the rote exercise of becoming, as Specht put it, “better bubble fillers.”

It will probably surprise you, then, to be reminded that the tests are referred to as standardized because they measure whether students possess knowledge contained in Minnesota’s academic standards. Standards created — wait for it — by educators.

Predictors of preparation for college

And according to a new report from the state Office of Higher Education, MCA scores are in fact a good predictor of a student’s likelihood of being prepared to enroll in and complete college.

Finally, the MCAs are used to calculate possibly the most meaningful state numbers, to be released Oct. 1. The Multiple Measures Ratings (MMRs) show not just how many students meet the standards but how much growth takes place in individual classrooms and schools.

To circle back to the start of this piece, so what do I make of the dissonance in my inbox? This year’s numbers again confirm a depressing truth: Minnesota has some of the largest disparities in the country when it comes to failing our students of color. And it’s not clear we can really say we are making even incremental progress.